The much talked about skills crisis is seen as one of the biggest challenges facing the UK economy, holding back growth and limiting productivity. But what effect is it having on the printer industry and what are suppliers doing to bridge the skills gap?
Phil Jones, Managing Director of Brother UK, says that Brother hasn’t suffered from the skills shortage, but has found recruitment harder, largely due to economic factors.
“From 2008 to 2014, it was more difficult to recruit new staff with an appropriate skillset, as post-recession people tended to stay put in their roles. However, the market is clearly moving again as the number of new job titles and moves that come through on LinkedIn each day is increasing rapidly,” he said.
The Midshire Group and Office Evolution say that they, too, have been largely unaffected so far, though it is something they have had to make allowances for.
Office Evolution Director Matt Goodall notes that the biggest impact has been the requirement to plan further in advance when looking for new staff, particularly within the technical area of the business. “There is no longer a steady stream of office equipment technicians sending in CVs,” he said. “Instead we have to find similar skill sets and then train staff accordingly.”
Julian Stafford, Director of Midshire Business Systems Northern, says that staff levels and any potential gaps are addressed at board level every month. “We try to predict and foresee any future issues before they arise,” he said.
Other companies have been affected in more material ways. Eric Shackleton, Sales Director of RDT Office Solutions Group, said: “We hit the skills shortage barrier early last year and our business came up short on delivering the right message to potential clients. We went through a period when we just moved copiers with no solution attached. Some members of the sales team had not fully understood the various software offerings and could not converse confidently with the client, so basically they ended up just selling a box.”
Shackleton adds that this skills gap had affected the firm’s ability to differentiate itself as a solutions-led business. “We were just like any other supplier for a while, by not providing devices with some sort of document capture, document management or monitoring software to enable the client and us to have total control,” he said.
Whether as a consequence of the skills shortage or people’s tendency to stay put during a recession, businesses like Brother have had to work hard to attract experienced trade sales people and marketers.
“We are a Times Top 100 Place to Workand also recently secured Investors in People Gold accreditation, the highest there is,” explained Jones. “We’re investing a lot in training and development, workplace layout and employee recognition programmes.”
Vision, too, has found it difficult to recruit people with the correct skill levels. Operations Director Mark Smyth said: “Vision’s Services business has been actively sourcing additional, highly skilled resource with printing and document management core capabilities. The process, whilst very important, is very time consuming and it has been a challenge at times to identify the right candidates, although we are now on plan with the targeted headcount for this fiscal year based on our year-on-year growth.”
Shackleton points out that whilst there are good people out there, once they are established at another supplier it’s unusual for them to move on unless there is a nice financial reward, and even then they may not be persuaded to leave.
“Right now we have a full complement of staff, sales are buoyant and we are selling good quantities of units, all with some sort of solution attached or embedded. If we are struggling anywhere, it is in finding good data cleaners, telephone marketing people and telesales staff. Currently employed people will not move on; they are worth their weight in gold and unless suitably rewarded, they will not leave their current place of work,” he said.
He adds that, as a result, it is becoming more necessary to provide appropriate training to new recruits. “We found that recruiting new staff with the right motivation and eagerness to learn the skill sets needed to succeed in this industry was the better approach. We teach them, we show them and allow them to educate themselves in respect of the skills they require to grow into true professionals,” he said.
Office Evolution’s Matt Goodall says that whilst recruiting new staff has not been a major issue for Office Evolution, it has got harder and more expensive as the business’s offering has evolved. “Although potential new staff are happy to join us, they seek a salary that is higher, due to an advanced but different skillset than would have been the norm a few years back,” he said.
He added: “Technical posts are harder to fill than ever. People are generally keen to move over from a similar technical role within IT or similar, but not within the office equipment sector.”
One solution used by many in the industry is apprenticeships. Brother took on two apprentices last year, both of whom have now secured full-time employment, and plans to take on three more next month. “As recruitment costs increase, training up young people is a good investment,” said Jones. “How you retain good people is as big a challenge as how you recruit, so ensuring that people feel valued, have career clarity and confidence that their impact is being recognised is key too.”
He added: “We have re-formatted our entire recognition system based around learning and development at all levels of the organisation, from top to bottom. We use a combination of in-house and external providers to deliver specific training linked to our company and individual role/people objectives. Improving ‘self’ improves our company.”
Goodall explains that Office Evolution is recruiting and training its own technical staff and, in conjunction with Develop, provides online and residential-based training to bring the skillset up to the required level.
“Apprenticeships are growing in popularity and most local educational authorities and chambers of commerce are actively promoting the provision of apprenticeships,” he said. “Our County Business of the Year Awards
always have an award for Apprenticeship Provider of the Year in recognition of apprentice programmes. It’s a great way to develop your own staff with appropriate skillsets. In addition to this, hiring the right people and training them for our business is key to our future.”
Goodall works closely with Develop to ensure staff are suitably trained and that the training provides them with the skills to develop within the industry. However, he points out that it is important to develop one’s own in-house programmes too.
“Less than five years ago, the copier industry was viewed by IT professionals as a lesser industry. Nowadays, the influx of IT specialists into the printer and copier industry has seen the skill levels increase and close working relationships between key providers has also increased. You cannot therefore rely solely on a manufacturer to formulate training; bespoke in-house training has to become the standard,” he said.
Midshire’s approach is to hire apprentices and junior staff who wish to progress through Midshire’s academy to a position in IT or field servicing. Stafford said: “They learn the business and how to do things the Midshire way. This works well for us and ensures we have a multi-skilled team around the customer at all times. Two of our junior staff, who started in telesales and on the delivery van, are now among our most successful area sales managers.”
Stafford adds that Midshire works with a number of apprenticeship specialists to find junior staff with the skills needed for different roles within marketing, IT, service and logistics. “Finding the right youngsters who are keen to learn, grow and develop is our greatest challenge. But having the right support from the providers helps us through this process,” he said.
Vision has introduced a Trainee Academy program to develop the services and technical requirements to support continued growth. It has also introduced an e-Learning package, which it promotes to all employees, and
has re-launched various learning programs, including those led by manufacturers and vendors, notably Samsung.
“The Samsung Print Training Academy offers a structured and accredited education program managed by Birmingham Metropolitan College in association with Samsung, and offers recognised technical accreditations as part of a comprehensive learning and development program,” explained Smyth.As a Xerox partner, RDT welcomes Xerox’s partnership with the National Apprenticeship Scheme to provide an Advanced Apprenticeship (Level 3) Diploma or Certificate in ICT Professional Competence, ICT Systems and Principles and Customer Service. “It’s a structured three-year development programme, which includes a range of on and off the job training coupled with structured support from a network of mentors within the business so that candidates have all the tools necessary to succeed,” said Shackleton.
He added: “We utilise the Xerox Training Programme. It’s very intensive but very rewarding for the attendees, and it covers all aspects of the industry, from sales to service. The course is mainly classroom-based, accompanied by lots of online exams, followed up with good old fashioned role play scenarios for those budding actors out there! The industry recognises the Xerox Training Programme as one of the best there is.’